Men's Discus: World Record Progression

Portrait of Mac Wilkins
Mac Wilkins. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

The discus throw is one of track and field's oldest events, dating back to the ancient Greek Olympics. In modern times, the first world-record performance recognized by the IAAF belongs to American James Duncan. On May 26, 1912 – shortly before the IAAF issued its original list of world records – Duncan hurled the discus 47.59 meters (156 feet, 1¾ inches), during a meet in New York City.

Duncan's mark proved hard to beat, as it survived for 12 years before American Thomas Lieb threw the discus 47.61/156-2¼ in Chicago, in 1924. The future college football coach remained in the books for less than a full year, however, before fellow American Glenn Hartranft improved the mark to 47.89/15-1¼ the following spring. Hartranft, who also went on to become a college football head coach, had previously been better known as a shot-putter, having earned the silver medal at the 1924 Olympics.

American ownership of the discus throw mark continued in 1926 when Bud Houser recorded a throw measuring 48.20/158-1½. The multi-talented Houser, who earned Olympic gold medals in both the shot put and discus in 1924, set his mark while competing for the University of Southern California. Eric Krenz became the fifth American to set the discus standard when he unleashed a throw that traveled 49.90/163-8½ in 1929. Krenz had reportedly topped Houser's mark in practice, then finally did so in an official meet while competing for Stanford University. He improved the mark twice during a 1930 meet, also held on Stanford's home track, in 1930. He reached 49.93/163-10 with his fourth throw of the meet, then broke through the 50-meter mark with his fifth attempt, which traveled 51.03/167-5. Unlike the modern practice, only Krenz's second record-breaking mark was officially recognized by the IAAF.

American Domination Interrupted

Krenz's final record lasted just three months until Paul Jessup unleashed a throw measuring 51.73/169-8½ at the U.S. Championships in August of 1930. In 1934, Sweden's Harald Andersson became the first non-American to set the discus record, shattering the mark with a toss of 52.42/171-11¾. The following year, Germany's Willy Schroder improved the standard to 53.10/174-2½.

Schroder's record stood for six years, then the discus mark returned briefly to the U.S. when Archibald Harris reached 53.26/174-8¾ in June 1941. Harris was overtaken by Italy's Adolfo Consolini five months later, when the future Olympic gold medalist recorded a throw measuring 53.34/175-0. Consolini extended his own mark to 54.23/177-11 in 1946, before another American, Robert Fitch, improved the mark to 54.93/180-2½ later that year. Consolini wrote himself back into the record book by heaving the discus 55.33/181-6 ¼ in 1948.

The U.S. reclaimed the mark in 1949 when Fortune Gordien set world marks of 56.46/185-2¾ in July and then 56.97/186-10¾ in August. Fellow American Sim Iness interrupted Gordien's world-record domination very briefly in June of 1953 with a toss measuring 57.93/190-½, but Gordien responded with two more record-breaking performances later in the year, of 58.10/190-7¼ and 59.28/194-5¾, respectively. Gordien's name remained in the record books for six more years, until Poland's Edmund Piatkowski improved the mark to 59.91/196-6½ in a 1959 meet in Warsaw. Yet another American, Rink Babka, matched Piatkowski's standard in 1960. The next year, Jay Silvester broke through the 60-meter barrier and gave the U.S. sole possession of the record again. He broke the mark by throwing the discus 60.56/198-8¼ on August 11, then improved the standard to 60.72/199-2½ just nine days later.

Al Oerter Takes Charge

American Al Oerter – already a two-time Olympic gold medalist, with two more to follow in 1964 and 1968 – recorded the first 200-foot throw in May of 1962, tossing the discus 61.10/200-5½. Oerter's first world mark didn't last long, however, as Vladimir Trusenyev of the Soviet Union unleashed a throw measuring 61.64/202-2¾ in June. But Oerter was back on top just four weeks later, with a toss of 62.45/204-10½ on July 1. Oerter improved the standard two more times, reaching 62.62/205-5¼ in 1963 and 62.94/206-5¾ in April, 1964.

Czechoslovakia's Ludvik Danek knocked Oerter out of the record book in August of 1964 with a throw measuring 64.55/211-9¼, while competing in what is now the Ludvik Danek Stadium in the Czech Republic. The future Olympic gold medalist improved his mark to 65.22/213-11½ the following year.

After a seven-year gap, Silvester reclaimed the discus world record in 1968 with a toss measuring 66.54/218-3½. He then shattered his mark in September of that year, reaching 68.40/224-4¾. In 1971, Silvester unofficially beat the 70-meter mark with a throw measuring 70.38/230-9. Because he was competing in an unsanctioned meet – and had a strong wind at his back – Silvester's effort was not ratified as a world record. But nobody would match the throw for five more years.

Sweden's Ricky Bruch matched Silvester's 68.40 mark in 1972. The two remained in the record book together for three more years, until John van Reenen of South Africa inched past the standard in 1975, with a toss of 68.48/224-8. Less than two months later, however, John Powell of the U.S. improved the mark to 69.08/226-7½ during a meet in California.

Mac Wilkins' Amazing Day

California was also the site of the next four world-record performances, all of which were accomplished by Mac Wilkins. The American set his first world mark on April 24, 1976 in Walnut, California, with a toss that reached 69.18/226-11½. Seven days later, on May 1, Wilkins accomplished one of the great feats in track and field history by breaking the world discus throw on three consecutive attempts, in a meet in San Jose. Wilkins began his record-shattering performance by improving his mark to 69.80/229-0. He then unleashed the first officially recognized 70-meter throw, measured at 70.24/230-5¼. Wilkins concluded his performance by extending the standard to 70.86/232-5¾.

Wilkins calls his performance “one of the highlights of my career, because it was actually three life records in a row, as well (as three world records). ... Usually it’s a one-time thing and you’re searching for that magic for awhile, when you get a life record. But I had a plan for what I wanted to focus on, on my first three throws, and I followed that plan. I was able to do it – and each throw was farther than the previous throw. So it was, ‘Holy cow!’ That was one of my best days of competition, the best days of throwing the discus. Not that I broke the world record, but that I threw three life records on consecutive throws.”

World Record Controversy

Wilkins' final record fell two years later, when East Germany's Wolfgang Schmidt tossed the discus 71.16/233-5½ in Berlin. The record appeared to have returned to the U.S. in 1981 when Ben Plucknett burst onto the scene with record-breaking breaking throws of 71.20/233-7 on May 16 in California and 72.34/237-4 on July 7 in Stockholm. Shortly after the Stockholm meet, however, the IAAF stripped the records from the books after discovering that Plucknett had tested positive for a banned steroid a few months earlier. His marks were the first to be revoked due to a positive drug test.

Yuriy Dumchev of the Soviet Union improved the record officially to 71.86/235-9 in 1983, and held the mark for three years. In 1986 another East German, Jurgen Schult, obliterated the record with a monumental throw of 74.08/243-½. Schult's huge improvement, plus later revelations regarding East German athletes' use of performance-enhancing drugs, has led some to question Schult's accomplishment. Nevertheless, his mark remains on the books and is the longest-surviving men’s track and field world record, as of 2014.

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